Globe and Mail

What is family after the breakup?

Two mothers see the different sides of separation: One revels in her single-parent household, the other struggles with life after marriage

The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 21, 2000

Toronto -- She was just 21, and she tried to back out at the last minute. The groom's mother was hysterical. "You don't want to marry my son? What's the matter with you!"

Even her mother urged her on, telling her to think of all the people who were coming to the wedding.

Sue Ballantyne went ahead, but it took her more than a dozen years to find the nerve to leave her husband.

"I wish I had the courage to have done it sooner," says Ms. Ballantyne, who separated from her husband a year and a half ago. "Right from the beginning. Right that day." Today she is 36 and the mother of two boys, aged 8 and 12.

But if Ms. Ballantyne's story sounds like a feminist fable, the life of Christine Carson, who lives across the street, is more of a traditionalist's tale.

Ms. Carson was happily married, the mother of two young children -- when suddenly her husband left her a year and a half ago. Although she is hardly traditional herself and describes herself as a feminist, she has been unable to come to terms with her family's new configuration, even in a world in which all sorts of non-traditional families are common.

"I feel right now that I don't have a family," she says. "I feel like I have children."

Ms. Carson and Ms. Ballantyne are the two faces of single motherhood in the middle-class Danforth neighbourhood in east-end Toronto, where a group of families have permitted a reporter to track their lives over the course of a year.

One has had an extremely hostile separation, yet is at peace. The other has had a model separation, but she is struggling.

Their stories suggest that the debate over changing family forms has not been settled. Is a family what its members say it is? Or does it have its own natural laws?

"Family is content, not form," says Barbara Coloroso, an author and lecturer on parenting.

"Why did God create Adam and Eve?" counters Esther Gelcer, a psychologist. "There is no society in which people raise children on their own."

Christine Carson

For moral support, Ms Carson is leaning on Ms. Coloroso's book, Parenting With Wit and Wisdom in Times of Chaos and Loss.

"To define the family as only one type of kinship structure is to define others as aberrations or deviations, not 'real' families," Ms. Coloroso writes.

Now if only Ms. Carson could believe it. She does in an intellectual sense. But the 42-year-old mother of Riley, 5, and Tess, 3, cannot yet bring herself to feel it.

"I want to be able to formulate some kind of family for them but the problem is, what do we mean by that? Does it limp along?"

Dr. Gelcer knows what Ms. Carson means. A divorced mother (and now grandmother) herself, she felt the same way.

"It's the call of nature. That's why God created Adam and Eve. In the Bible it said Eve was created to be a help in opposition to him. In other words, she's there to help him by giving him another perspective and that's very important in a partnership."

The key to avoiding the depression and anxiety faced by so many single mothers is to take time for yourself and build a support system, says Dr. Gelcer, a former chief psychologist for the child and family program at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto. (She is now in private practice.)

Ms. Coloroso urges single parents to avoid treating their new family unit as simply a "pause" on the way to a new family. Creating rituals, routines, special places, common spaces and common memories will help establish the sense of family, she says.

Ms. Carson believes in the importance of family rituals and says she is looking for some new ones. Saturday mornings seem promising: She and the children lie around in their pajamas watching cartoons or hang around outside behind their house without any pressure to go anywhere. But "we're not there yet. The pieces are still falling into place."

Overseeing her new family can seem like mere crisis management. "It's easy to fall into this just-coping framework, where all I'm doing is providing essential services."

By her own description, her ex-husband has been admirably supportive.

Financially, he has been completely behind her and the children and has not pressured her to return to the paid work force until she is ready. Ms. Carson, an artist and clothing designer, started a three-day-a-week job this week in props and wardrobe for a movie-production company.

Her ex-husband's financial support "has been invaluable in allowing me to recover from this situation and keep everything stable for my children."

He also has the children nearly half the time: twice during the week and every other weekend.

In crisis, opportunity presents itself. "It's almost the best of both worlds, given that you trust your ex with your children as I do. I can go out, I can go away -- I can do anything."

She has many dreams. She would like pursue her passion, cycling, in China. For her new job she bikes an hour and fifteen minutes in each direction. She is also a performance artist and works in video. "I'd like to make enough money that I can focus on creating my art."

But for now, she is still healing. "It's not over for me yet."

However, she has a strong network of support from family, and friends. "This neighbourhood -- oh my God -- everyone on this street has been so supportive. I've been so glad to be here. So many times people have been there for me."

And she has been seeing a therapist. "She's my vent to spew -- to say all the things and think all the things that you're not supposed to think."

Sue Ballantyne

Ms. Ballantyne's breakthrough into life as a single mother can only be understood with a visit to her past -- to the day she shuffled down the church steps with her groom and climbed into a waiting limousine. Her mother-in-law clambered in beside them.

"Tell your mother she has to leave," Ms. Ballantyne told her new husband.

"No, no, she's coming with us," he replied.

Ms. Ballantyne says now: "I thought, 'Have I ever blown this!' "

She was not assertive, she explains. Her husband, a bus driver, was a homebody; she, on the other hand, wanted to learn, to grow, to see people, attend events.

He told her to stay home; she submitted at first. Finally, she rebelled.

"These people who wait till their kids are grown up [to separate] . . . I didn't think I could last. My life would be more than half over."

The separation has been difficult. Her ex-husband sees the children from time to time and pays monthly support of $635, according to federal guidelines, but the former spouses do not communicate.

If there is a stigma to being a single mother, she does not feel it. "People say to me, 'That's great. You're really courageous.' "

The hardest time was at the beginning. Like Ms. Carson, she went to a therapist, but stopped after a few months. "I would go to explain my fears about the hostility. I wanted to be able to function at work without it interfering with my responsibilities. I didn't want it to overwhelm me."

She has benefited from strong supports. Ms. Ballantyne is a co-ordinator in a law firm and her boss helped her find a good lawyer; she also took in Ms. Ballantyne and her sons during a rough period.

Ms. Ballantyne's mother goes over after school to babysit so that her boys are not latchkey kids.

And she has a boyfriend -- Jack, 54, who owns a restaurant. She brings her children along on her dates, mostly for dinners out.

"I tell my kids I should be entitled to a life. I want them to see me as a healthy human functioning in a relationship. I want them to see a healthy male-female relationship."

Unlike Ms. Carson, she feels she has a family. With her husband gone, "We're a different family. You can start afresh. I said, 'We're going to have new ground rules. I'm going to be there for you and you'll be there for me.' Kind of like us against the world, you know?"

She confides her hopes and dreams to her children, particularly her older son -- a sign of how relationships between mothers and children can change in such situations. And she acknowledges the danger of becoming emotionally dependent on her children.

"I don't think before we separated I would sit down and tell about my dreams and what I want to be. I never talked to them in an adult way."

Still, this weekend, as she turns 37, she is bringing in her mother to babysit and travelling with Jack to New Orleans.

"I am going to have some quality adult time," she said. "I need it."


Single mothers are at higher risk than other people for depression, anxiety and having a general dissatisfaction with life, several studies show.

About 14.5 per cent of all families were headed by single parents in 1996. Of these, 83 per cent, or 945,000 families, were headed by women.

About one-quarter of children will spend at least part of their childhood in a single-parent household, according to a 1993 study.

Most single mothers -- about 59 per cent -- live below the unofficial poverty lines set by Statistics Canada.

The children of single parents are at higher risk than other children for emotional, social and academic problems. This holds true regardless of the family's income, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth being done by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada.


Tips for single parents from What Should I Tell the Kids: A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World, by Ava L. Siegler:

Don't ask your child to "fill in" for the absent parent. Boundaries between lone parents and their children may become blurred. Lonely single parents sometimes keep their children too close to them, "way past the time when children need this kind of attachment."

Don't overburden your child with too much responsibility. Single parents may ask children to grow up too fast -- to assume tasks beyond their years, such as caring for ill siblings.

Don't constantly ask one child to be responsible for another. This can create tensions and rivalries between siblings.

Don't make your child your confidant. It may weigh them down with worries that properly belong to their parents. Your sex life, money worries, job concerns or health problems are for adult friends, family members or counsellors to know about -- not your children.

Take care of yourself. Sacrificing too much of yourself is harmful to children. A proper balance leaves children room to give and take.

Let your child leave you in developmentally appropriate ways. Don't make children feel guilty for moving on or leaving you.

The Series

Family Matters will appear each Friday with a full page tracking the lives of Canadian families in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, as well as examining other family issues.

The series will be posted daily on:

We invite readers to post their answers to this question:

What are the best strategies for surviving a marriage breakup?

Related Web sites:
Today's Parent Online
Canadian Parents Online
Parent Soup
Health Canada

Copyright © 2000 Globe Information Services